The only journey is the one within. – Rainer Maria Rilke
Last week I drove to American University to help my youngest daughter, Hannah, pack up for the summer. A day earlier, she had finished her final exams and handed in her last paper. Her sophomore year over, she is light years ahead of where I was 35 years ago when, in the spring of 1979, I stood on the rolling green campus of Wittenberg University and breathed my last scent of southern Ohio air before boarding a plane home for a summer job in Worcester, Massachusetts. My college years only halfway completed, it seemed then that life could not advance quickly enough.
College had introduced me to a world of books and ideas and opened my mind to options and possibilities not before contemplated. I was ambitious, driven, and self-centered. I gave little thought to how life would change as I grew older or that I might someday become a father. I needed urgently to make up for the lost years of my adolescence, when less serious pursuits captured the whole of my imagination. And yet, I was lost and directionless, unsure of where I was heading or how I would get there.
With time and age comes perspective, an ability to reflect on the varied dimensions of one’s past without regret and better understand and appreciate the present. “The beautiful journey of today can only begin when we learn to let go of yesterday,” wrote Steve Maraboli. Where the journey leads is not readily foreseen. Within ten years of that spring day in 1979, I would graduate from college and obtain a law degree, pass the Bar exam, and eventually become a big-city prosecutor. But it was only when I became a father that I developed perspective.
Jenny came into this world smaller than a loaf of bread one cool and clear September morning in 1990. Hannah was added to the mix three years and four months later. No longer was my life only about me. Ambition and dreams took a backseat to the privilege and burdens of fatherhood. “With children the clock is reset,” wrote Jhumpa Lahiri in The Lowlands. “We forget what came before.” Children make us wiser.
“Much of life, fatherhood included,” writes Ben Fountain, “is the story of knowledge acquired too late: if only I’d known then what I know now, how much smarter, abler, stronger, I would have been.” Nothing really prepares you to be a parent. There is no playbook, no pre-routed map or book to guide us each step of the way. Instead, what we really do is figure it all out as we go and realize this is precisely what our children are doing too.
My brief prelude to Washington allowed me to spend a rare evening with Hannah and Jen together. Only two years before, I watched with pride as Jen waltzed to the stage of American’s Bender Arena in her blue graduation gown to receive her degree and put the finishing touches on her college education. She has confidently and swiftly embraced the larger world, sharing an apartment in Adams Morgan and pursuing a career in graphic design for the federal government. It seems like only yesterday when Jen and Hannah educated me on the symbolism and significance of the latest segment of Harry Potter as we drove eleven hours to visit their grandparents in North Carolina; or when they insisted on the musical selections as I taxied them to travel soccer tournaments and riding lessons. At dinner the other night, while listening to Jen talk of life and work, I realized she is a long way from the little girl I taught to ride a bicycle and hit a softball. A financially independent, career-minded young woman, she needs me less these days. As a father, I know this is a good thing, but it brings a touch of sadness just the same.
On the drive home, it warmed my heart to hear Hannah light up when discussing her courses, books, and favorite professors as she begins to figure out what direction her future path might take. Like her sister, she is a kind, compassionate, and progressive-minded human being. But whereas Jen is more accepting of the world’s flaws, Hannah is intent on changing the world and fighting the battles. She has become deeply engaged in the politics of Middle East peace and taken a leadership role in her college chapter of J Street U, which promotes a two-state solution and seeks an Israel that reflects its original Zionist ideals and democratic values. A Jewish Studies major and German minor, she understands the complexity of and need for German reconciliation with its tragic history. She dreams of someday becoming a Rabbi and is undeterred by the theological and political divisions within Judaism.
If only the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations could see the light in Hannah’s eyes when she speaks of these things, they may have been less apt to reject J Street’s application for membership. It was the wrong message to send to thousands of young American Jews who have found a cause and a means to stay connected to Israel and Jewish life. Some of the opposition to J Street from older, more conservative Jewish institutions and Orthodox groups is fierce, and I worry as a father as to how Hannah will handle what can at times be a nasty and personalized debate. My cautionary, risk-averse instincts step forward; but then I listen to Hannah defend what she believes is right and just and I soon comprehend that she, too, has become her own person.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for our children is to allow them to experience life on their own terms, to climb the rope in gym class, take risks, ride the subway, and let them believe in themselves. I am most proud of my daughters’ sense of self, for they seem genuinely comfortable in their own skin and rarely strive to be someone they are not. As Emerson taught, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” It is a lesson I have failed often.
I worry at times that my daughters will someday confront obstacles to their dreams and that their ideals will be compromised; or worse, they will become jaded like the rest of us. “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned,” wrote philosopher Joseph Campbell, “so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” It is a sentiment easier said than accepted, requiring us to live in the moment and not be swept into a current of unrealistic ideals and unachievable dreams.
And yet, our dreams are what motivate us, what compel us to stay engaged and excited about life. Dreams of a better world are often dismissed as naïve and unrealistic. I worry about the loss of American idealism, without which we are hopelessly destined for mediocrity and imperfection. I hope that my children never lose sight of their dreams, their sense of justice and of right and wrong. Although we live in a cynical world that tries constantly to beat us down, it is a beautiful world and a beautiful life nonetheless.
Time passes more swiftly now. The search for the Promised Land is often a mirage. But when we appreciate the abundance of our riches, in love and affection, passion and understanding; when we maintain a desire to improve ourselves and the world around us; and when we take seriously our dreams and ideals without losing perspective and empathy for those whose dreams have been derailed and deferred, only then do we realize that life can be a wonderful journey indeed. “We may run, walk, stumble, drive, or fly,” writes Gloria Gaither, “but let us never lose sight of the reason for the journey, or miss a chance to see a rainbow on the way.”